Recent events have sparked the long-smouldering conversation about racism in America. While the Civil Rights movement peaked in this nation fifty years ago, some countries took a longer time to reach "equality." Associated Press correspondent Donna Bryson was stationed in South Africa from 1993-1996 and then again in 2008-2012; she saw first-hand the transition process that country went through and went on to write about it in It's a Black/White Thing. Bryson will be talking about her book today, December 12, at Bookbar and tomorrow, December 13 at Ujamaa Holiday Market.
During her first stint in South Africa, Bryson witnessed the country pull itself out of its apartheid system and embrace democracy. She was there on April 27, 1994 when the first all-race election was held in the country. "It was a euphoric time," Bryson says. "The country is 80 percent black, and that 80 percent of the country was coming into its own. There was also exhilaration of being welcomed back into the international community and a sense of relief that it was all ending without a race war."
When she returned several years later, the country was definitely different, she recalls. It still had a long way to go, but strides were being made. "Greetings are really important culturally among black South Africans," Bryson says. "Often, blacks wouldn't necessarily respond to the white person trying to engage in these greetings because there was a lot of suspicion. But when [my husband and I] came back in 2008, blacks were starting to feel more confident. They were starting to feel like this is their country and wanting to treat everyone equally. We started seeing blacks wielding political power, economic power."
It's a Black/White Thing centers on the University of Free State campus in what could be considered the heartland of South Africa, Bryson says. The university was founded by Afrikaners and had been a white-only school until pressures forced it to reluctantly allow in black students. In 2007 a group of students put a video on YouTube harassing black staff and showing their resistance to integration; covered that story and the video was soon seen all over the world.
Over the years, Bryson continued to write pieces about the university, as it became more accepting, appointed its first black president and even give an honorary degree to Oprah Winfrey, who recognized the school's racial reconciliation. Bryson was encouraged to write a book delving deeper into the university.
Bryson says she learned a lot about South Africa through the students. She saw how complex race politics can be with black students struggling with fears that white friends will betray them and white students being accused of betraying their own tribe. "There's fear, and a laziness to adopt stereotypes," Bryson says. "It's so much easier to decide you know everything about a person based on their appearance or the color of their skin instead of getting to know them. I think there's also an unwillingness to stand out from the crowd."
In her book, she talks about the progress she's noticed with students and the ones who decided to challenge the status quo. Some students refused to speak Afrikaans, a language mostly associated with the white population, to avoid leaving out black students. Others went on to learn Sotho in order to communicate with black peers. Some students made it a point to sit next to new people in every class; Bryson also writes about others who are shedding their parents' racial misgivings.
Bryson is optimistic about what will come next. The essential piece of the puzzle, she says, is to continue the discourse about race, especially in light of recent events in this country, like Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri -- and its aftermath.
"It's a wake- up call that we need to keep having these conversations," she says. "I think with race relations, people think we've done it all already, but it's never done. You have to keep challenging it. You can't have the conversation just once. As a parent you know you have to keep having the same conversation to have an impact. Sometimes as a nation we forget that."
To hear Donna Bryson talk about her book, head to BookBar at 7 p.m. on December 12 or to the Ujamaa Holiday Market at the Rising Star Baptist Church (1500 South Dayton, Aurora) at 12:30 p.m. on December 13.
Follow Amanda Moutinho on Twitter at @amandamoutinho.
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